Hurricane Harvey’s impact: Chemical spills

  • Published on August 31st, 2017

We published an article at CleanTechnica just a few months back discussing the possibility that massive amounts of dangerous petrochemicals could be released into the city of Houston if the region was to hit by a storm bringing high levels of storm surge with it. Houston, you see, is home to coastal storage facilities that are host to chemicals produced by the regional fossil fuel refineries. And now, just a couple of months later, Houston has indeed been hit by a large storm. So, where do we stand?


While Hurricane Harvey has been in some ways a very damaging storm, the reality is that the storm surge accompanying it hasn’t been particularly severe — in other words, the situation could have been much, much worse than it has been.

Despite the lack of extreme storm surge, though, there does appear to have still been a number of chemical spills in the Houston area in association with the storm — which seem worth bringing attention to here.

UPDATE: There has been an explosion at the Arkema Chemical plant.

The only definite case of a chemical spill that’s come to my attention yet has been the rupturing of pipeline on the northeast side of La Porte in the petrochemical district — around 20 or so miles from downtown Houston. That spill occurred on Monday, and was reportedly contained the same day by La Porte firefighters and a Harris County hazmat crew.

Here’s more on that from a local source: “The chemical that leaked just north of the interchange between Texas 225 and Texas 146 was anhydrous hydrogen chloride, ‘which presents symptoms of eye, throat, and nasal irritation,’ according to a statement issued by the city of La Porte.

“A federal safety guide identifies hydrogen chloride as a corrosive poison gas that ‘can cause serious or permanent injury.’ The guide describes the chemical as a ‘colorless gas with a sharp, pungent odor.’ The non-flammable substance is part of the manufacturing process for ‘rubber, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and in gasoline refining and metals processing.’

“Residents were ordered to shelter in place on La Porte’s northeast side, in the area contained by Farrington Road on the west, North Avenue H on the south and Texas 146 on the east. As a result, the city of Baytown said the Fred Hartman Bridge was closed over the Houston Ship Channel. A hazmat team from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office was on scene by 6:30 pm, agency spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said. They worked with local firefighters and the pipeline company, as Harris County pollution control officials monitored air quality.”

While that is the only spill that I’ve confirmed as of writing this article, it seems fairly likely that others have occurred as well. Something to note, though, is that much of the chemical smell reported in the area is likely just the result of various refineries and chemical production plants shutting down rapidly — which results in abnormally high emissions events and concentrated plumes of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants.

On that note, there have been quite a number of people complaining about such smells (and accompanying headaches, sore throats, etc.) on social media, but it’s of course impossible as of yet to determine where these smells are coming from.

To really bring home the point of what’s being discussed here, Houston is home to around 25% of the petroleum refining capacity in the US, more than half of the jet fuel production, around 43% of the ethylene production, and around 40% of the production of specialty chemical feedstock.

Altogether, it appears that the damage as regards chemical and fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t too bad — it certainly could have been far worse than it is.

Are any of those reading this still in the city? Do you have any citizen reports to make about possible chemical spills?

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

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